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Total Training – Expression Blend Review Part 2

January 30, 2008 1 comment

Well, 17 hours later I have completed my Blend Video Tutorial odyssey begun in Part 1. By the end, I was definitely feeling a little overwhelmed. Let’s face it: there is a lot to learn! Microsoft says this is the first significant shift in UI technology since the GUI was invented over 25 years ago, and I have to say they are right. Any such paradigm shift is going to cause its fair share of confusion and issues.

But let me say this here and now: it is going to all be worth it.

The Product Review

I covered most of it in the previous post, and watching another 8 hours of training only solidified my opinion: this is a good product. Gagne thoroughly knows the material and presents it in fine fashion. By the end of watching him work through samples and applications, I would at times feel like an old hat. I actually was able to grasp and understand the basics, and even learned a bit about using and navigating Blend. At the same time, I kept seeing new things and being amazed right up to the end.

I think the best thing about this product is that it wasn’t all theoretical garbage. I think we’ve all seen too many demos that don’t really show you anything. In this case, you get to actually watch him work and he does a great job of explaining exactly what he is doing and why. And if there is a downside, that is it as well: he occasionally spends too much time trying to explain C#, but like I said previously I can live with it.

I would be happy to recommend this series.

And now more on Blend

I wanted to mention a few things about Blend, XAML, and WPF that came to mind during this process.

First, there have been some grumblings in the community about the approach Microsoft took with Blend. The Microsoft theory is that Designers will use Blend to create the interfaces, and developers will use Visual Studio to provide the functionality. My guess is that most developers, yours truly included, are both designer and developer. As a result, we are a little annoyed that MS would try to keep tools from us by separating them. In other words, as I’ve heard the question asked before: “Why aren’t the Blend Tools simply part of Visual Studio?”

For a while, as both designer and developer, I have to admit I had the same questions. Now, however, I am starting to see the grand vision. First of all, there are a ton of graphical features in Blend, far more so than we have ever seen in VS. And some of these tools really are graphics designer oriented. In fact, graphics are the entire point of Blend, XAML, and WPF. Personally, I am not a graphics guy. I create websites, but rarely the graphics that go on them. In fact, I have often though that was the next step for me if I wanted to increase my Web skills.

But I’m not sure I have the patience or even really the desire to become a graphics guy. The good news is that I think the average developer can create some really cool stuff courtesy of Blend, without having to become a true graphic artist. What we don’t need is to have the vast amount of features and functions for Blend bloating up VS. I think MS has done the right thing by separating the two, and at the same time they have also done a great job of integrating the two products. You can, and I’m sure will, use them side by side, simultaneously working on the same projects and files.

The effects you can produce are nothing short of fantastic. Of course, you can still produce some really bad looking applications: “developer art” as Gagne once refers to it. But with a little effort and training, your apps can get a real boost. Also, because of the vector graphic nature of XAML and WPF, the design possibilities are virtually unlimited.

And now for the best news of all. I have seen several demos of XAML and WPF before, a couple of them even used Blend, but in each one the presenter eventually resorted to editing XAML code manually. This always seemed a kludge and a signal that this stuff was not ready for prime time. Well, I guess now it is: not once in the entire 17 hours of video did I see Gagne manually change or edit XAML code. He got all his results actually using Blend. Now it’s my turn, and I can’t wait!

Oh… one more quick note: I had written previously about my preference for Xara Xtreme as a graphics tool. That may still be true, but I think next in the series for me will be Expression Design. Why? Because you can export the graphics as XAML files and layers, which makes them completely consumable in Blend and WPF. Folks, this stuff is seriously cool!

Categories: Product Reviews

Total Training – Expression Blend Review Part 1

January 29, 2008 2 comments

This post is the first in a new category called “Product Reviews”. When I can, I will post reviews like this on the products I buy and use.

I mentioned previously that I purchased and ordered Total Training’s Expression Bundle. The package arrived with 6 DVD’s containing over 40 hours of Video Training. Since I am most interested in WPF, I began with the 2 DVD set for Expression Blend, each with 8.5 hours of training videos. I still have over 10 hours to go in the Blend series, but here are my first impressions.

The Good

I was impressed right away: the instructor for the Blend series is Dante Gagne. According to his introduction, Dante worked in development and testing on the Blend project and later became the instructor to the Microsoft Evangelists for Blend. In other words, he has serious credentials for training others how to use Blend.

The videos are pretty slick. There is good production value and the lessons follow a well laid out script. The supporting examples are on task and appropriate with little superfluous content. It is obvious that Dante knows this product, and the videos are replete with valuable tidbits such as Keyboard Shortcuts, alt-Mouse clicks, and other such goodies. Unfortunately, some of these go by so fast, and there are so many of them, that I know I won’t remember half of them when I start actually using Blend.

The DVDs came complete with Code Samples and Projects. These are laid out well in a folder structure that matches the lesson plan.

The Bad

I occasionally got bored while Dante covered some basics, but those periods are blissfully short and necessary given the diverse target audience. This is especially true later when he begins to include a little code behind and has to explain some C# concepts. As a C# developer myself, I would disagree with the way he characterizes some of the elements, but I can let it slide since according to Microsoft the Blend audience are Designers and not Developers.

The videos are broken up into three parts: Parts, Lessons, and Topics. The Topics range from 30 seconds to a few minutes in length. This can get annoying, because it forces a short break in between each Topic while the program loads the next one. The program is a proprietary Total Training viewer which must be installed one time before you can view any of the videos. I honestly do not see the value add for the end user: I’m sure the program gives TT more control over the presentation, such as jumping from one lesson to the next, but most likely its primary function is to ensure that the videos can not be viewed by those who have not purchased a Total Training package.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, this program is the worst part of the deal. If I begin the tutorial and do nothing else, the program works fine. The problem occurs when I need to do something else. I can pause the video and restart it, but as soon as I activate any other Window, the Total Training program no longer functions. If I activate another window while the video is running, the sound will continue to function but the video freezes and will not recover.

Once I return to the TT program and click on anything, I receive the traditional “(Not Responding)” message and the only recourse is to kill the program and start over. I can locate and start from the last lesson I was on, but this is a really bad problem, especially considering the length on these DVDs. I need to be able to pause the application and do other things (at least my boss seems to think so!) I had really intended on writing this review as I went through the material, which would have allowed me to be much more specific. Obviously, this issue makes that essentially impossible.

I will report this problem to Total Training, so it looks like we’ll have a chance to review their customer support as well. The training videos themselves are such a good product, I hate to see them brought down by something so trivial. I’ll keep you all informed of the situation. In the meantime, I will continue to struggle though.

UPDATE:

I went to the Total Training website and found a section on “Windows Vista FAQs” under Tech Support.? There, I found an entry that I used to solve the problem.? The entry was not correct, but it gave enough clues to solve the issue, which appears to be specific to Vista.

1)? The FAQ says to change “Launchpad.exe” on the DVD.? I could not find that file, and the DVD would not be writable anyway, so that did not make a lot of sense.

2) Instead, I went to the install location, in my case this is “C:\Program Files\Total Training” and there I found another folder called “TT Expression Blend Ess”.? In that folder, I changed the properties on TEBES.exe according to the link above, setting it to run in Windows XP Service Pack 2 compatibility mode.

After doing that, I can now pause and restart the training with no problem.? I anticipate doing this with each Product group.

So my review for their Tech Support will be short: I was able to quickly locate, diagnose, and solve my issue based on the information on their website.

Categories: Product Reviews
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